May 25, 2008

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek - review

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent
James Meek
The events and effects of September 11 have proved endless fodder for non-fiction books and documentaries, but their impact on the world of fiction has taken longer to be felt. Lately a few movies such as Lions for Lambs and Rendition have dared to tentatively poke their heads out at the box office and comment on the state of the ‘war on terror’, but have by and large been greeted with apathy, and quickly forgotten.

Luckily, literature often gets a pass where cinema fears to tread, and opportunities to understand the war from alternative perspectives have begun to make themselves heard. Authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Jess Walter, and Don DeLillo have recently taken bold steps forward in using the events as a backdrop for intelligent examinations of the world as it now functions.

Latest to employ the aftermath of 9/11 as a literary device is British novelist James Meek, author of the critically-lauded The People’s Act of Love. Meek may be in a better position to comment on such issues than most; in addition to his sterling work as a novelist, he worked as a reporter in Afghanistan, and in 2004 was named Foreign Correspondent and Amnesty Journalist of the Year for his reporting on Iraq and Guant├ínamo Bay.

As such, the Afghanistan scenes in his new novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent have the sting of authenticity. As his protagonist Kellas traverses through a war “scripted for an audience that knew as much about orcs and Sauron as it did about Iraqis and Saddam,” the moral quagmire of this new war has rarely felt more personal.

Far more than a blasted landscape travelogue, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (a nicely ominous title) is a manic cry for truth in a world that has lost its moral bearings. And as Kellas undergoes a tragicomic mid-life crisis that takes him from Afghanistan to England to the U.S., it becomes readily apparent that truth is, and always has been, a nebulous and wholly subjective quality.

Kellas is a dispirited British war correspondent whose belief system has been sorely tested by the new warfare he is sent out to cover. Unlike the honourable reporting he once offered, Kellas was now forcibly compelled to take part in “a greater story, a baton-twirling lit-up marching parade of a story that belonged to a mighty nation of storytellers, mythmakers and newscryers, America, but which other, foreign storytellers might attach themselves to.”

Kellas himself is no saint, himself having written a superficial military thriller with the sole intent of making money, and is finding himself less and less capable of functioning without an ethical compass. And when a strange email arrives from Astrid, an American reporter he once knew, Kellas’ finds himself completely adrift, with Astrid the only lifeline he can see.

Through Kellas, Meek is interested in the search for the truth that underlies the fiction of our lives. We have become a society of surface, he implies, more content to watch and comment than actually participate.

“There was a cult of seeing without knowing and watching without touching,” Kellas notes about society’s understanding of the war, but this concept can be stretched over all aspects of modern life. The world has become enamoured with the superficial, the soundbite and the 30-second newspiece, preventing empathy and halting any hope of understanding one another, either in the arena of war or the domestic field of interpersonal relationships.

In an inspired scene of black comedic rage, Kellas rails at a dinner party hosted by liberal commentators who have never set foot outside their country, a scene as notable for its pointed observations as it is for the undercurrent of self-loathing that permeates Kellas’ every action. Meek’s novel is ostensibly about war, but as Kellas staggers from one set piece to another, Meek slowly unveils a quietly complicated love story, hinting that misunderstandings between countries are no more or less complicated than those of individuals.

Meek has a wonderfully sardonic way with words, exemplified in Kellas’ first reactions to the U.S.: “For foreigners arriving here, America was a marvel harder to believe, infinitely more wondrous: a real version of a notorious fake…[like] a long-lens paparazzi shot of Jesus on the beach, paler, flabbier, shorter, with less holy eyes than the icons had it, staggeringly real.”

However, as Meek throws Kellas about from one soul-shattering experience to another, it is hard to maintain a sense of believability about Descent as a whole. Kellas is a brilliant character, but his travails function better as separate stories than as a whole novel. There is a sense of incompleteness to Meek’s tale, which indeed may have been his ultimate point, that there is no ending to life’s miseries, but it causes subtle harm to the story.

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent may not be wholly successful, but it is always compelling, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Meek keeps a sure hand on the wheel, and while it may drift at times, the trip itself is worth taking.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press (expurgated version), May 25, 2008.

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